Communication key to smooth estate transition

Bob and Jan retired when they were 67 and 65 years old, after turning over the farm to their eldest son.

They had a sound house and a big, beautiful yard that they both enjoyed working in. They were involved in the community and close friends with most of their neighbours. And their son and his family were always nearby, just on the other side of the shelter belt.

So, it came as a surprise to almost everyone when Bob and Jan announced that this would be their last summer on the farm. They were leaving in September. They’d already bought a house in the city.

When friends wondered why they were leaving the farm they loved, they were polite but evasive, until one evening, on his front porch looking out over a field of yellow sunflowers, sloping down to the little creek that meandered through the home quarter, when Bob sighed and told his friend, Steve why he and Jan were leaving their farm house.

“It’s those kids,” he says, “We can’t do it any more.”

There were four grandkids, and they were a busy bunch. They skated, they sang, they played soccer. Knowing Jan loved spending time with her grandchildren, her son and daughter-in-law gave her lots of opportunities to chauffeur the kids to their various activities. Jan was worn out.

They’d tried dropping gentle hints to no avail. They loved their kids and their grandkids dearly; they didn’t want to fall out with them. They felt that the only way they could continue to have a loving relationship with them all was to leave.

Bob and Jan’s story is not uncommon, said Don Tophin of the Retiring Farmer Wealth Management Process consulting agency.

Living in close proximity to family and other loved ones often works well, but at times it can be difficult for both generations, he said.

Communication is needed, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. The younger generation, the folks in their 20s and 30s, are more likely to talk about problems such as these. The older generation tends to set itself up with the younger generation, he said.

“We do it to ourselves. We tell our kids, ‘no problem, bring them over.’ But we’ve just got to tell our children we just can’t do it. We have to limit our time, do what we can do, do what we want. I think for the most part, it’s probably Bob and Jan who are likely more to blame because we don’t communicate, we don’t tell our kids, and our kids develop these expectations or they don’t want to disappoint Dad and Mom by saying, “we’re not going to bring our kids to you,” and “if we don’t ask Dad and Mom to run our kids around for hockey, we’re letting them down.”

He says it might be easier to ward off potential trouble before it occurs by not building that second house on the same quarter, which is easier said than done,” he said. He acknowledges that economics are a big factor.

“I think overall, it’s basic parenting. There’s nothing wrong with Bob and Jan saying we can’t do it anymore.

“Bob and Jan aren’t being upfront. They’re not old but they’re older; they can’t do what they could do.”

And Bob and Jan also want their own life.

“I think overall as parents we do not tell our children what we really believe and our children do not tell us what they really believe. It’s not just about the farm, it’s about everything. As an external adviser, both generations will tell me what they won’t tell each other, very, very frequently.”

Farm succession is looked at as a single issue and there’s much more to it, he says.

“You’ve got to distinguish the business of farming from the ownership of farming but you’ve also got to separate the personal part. The personal property, lifestyle, is that part of the farm? Retirement and estate planning are also components of succession planning.

“When you take an integrated approach, those (softer) issues come up. When you look at separation of personal life from the farm, those things naturally will come up. “

In his business, it’s usually the parents who make the first appointment, he says.

“So I talk to parents first. Two-thirds of elder abuse is financial, so I talk to parents of children first, then the children.”

Typically, these aspects they haven’t talked about will come up.

He asks both generations, what is important to them? This does not mean goals and objectives and typically the answer will be something like, “we love our children; we want to be part of their lives.”

The goals and objectives will flow from that, he says.

“It has to start out with everybody understanding everything from farm ownership to control management, separating the farm from the life.”

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